Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Diablo Blues: When the Games Don't Change, But We Do

The word "Diablo" is magical to me. Before 2000, it was not. It just represented a Spanish word that I was largely unfamiliar with other than seeing it on bottles of hot sauce. Since I'm not one of those nutty Southerners that pours it into their Bloody Marys, I had no reason to want to get in touch with anything that looked so purposely unpleasant, no matter how beguiling those demon eyes looked as they gazed deeply into my own from those colorful labels.

That is, until Diablo II hit me so hard I didn't realize I had the bug until I couldn't go a day without playing. And yes, I didn't play the first game until after I had played countless hours of the sequel. I'm one of those guys, and you can call me out for being a late adopter now, if you please.

I wasn't panting on launch day like I was for the recent release of Diablo III.  Actually, the game came out and went largely unnoticed for a while. I had never played an MMO before and wouldn't be motivated to do so until Final Fantasy XI hit in 2002, and even then I had to be dragged there by an obsessive love of the Final Fantasy series.

Nothing about the MMO format appealed to me. I had been kindly passed over by the black death known as Everquest, allowed to keep my sanity intact. When I looked at these games, all I saw was a rat in a wheel: grinding, grinding, and more grinding, an endless race which had no real finish line. Being the type of gamer that was mainly motivated by stories with a beginning, middle, and an end, it made no sense to me to pour so much time and effort into something that essentially had no real finale.

Why Diablo II, then? I'm not sure. Truthfully, at first it was fun to play with friends, something I never did much of before as I was always more or a solo gamer. Afterwards, it became something I found myself drawn to so I could play alone, just to run through a familiar area or greet a miniboss (Hello, Rakanishu!). No matter how many times I played through the acts of Diablo II, I could always see myself going back again and again for more.

If you played Diablo competitively, there was reason to return over and over. Ladder characters were allowed access to ladder only items, and Hardcore meant losing your character to a permanent death was a chance you always risked when playing in that mode. The challenge was there. Except (and I admit this with some level of wistful shame), I never took it. Never being a competitive player to begin with meant that I could happily play Diablo II solo, just clicking through wave after wave of monsters and progressing on my merry way. I just never had the inclination to take it any further than that, and what's great is that you never had to. It provided plenty of options for every type of gamer.

The announcement of Diablo III was easily the most exciting game-related news of 2008 for me. We had discussed it on and off for years, and even though I periodically played the second game once or twice a year, I really did want a new one. I was even waiting with bated breath, because the rumors were wild right before it got announced.

Jump forward to May 2012, and here we are, only a few weeks into a brand new Diablo universe. I stayed up until 2 am the night of the release, watching the game slowly download onto my computer and feeling celebratory. After such a long wait! It was here! The joy of blissfully clicking my way through thousands of imps, demons and who knows what other kinds of hellions!

The first week of play was just like what I remembered, except with more social connectivity than ever before. Finding my friends was all too easy, and the complication of getting those group games together was gone. Within seconds, I could be in a full party, enjoying all the blissful memories of the past, and finding it all fit so well, like some garment you've had since college and furtively sleep in from time to time because of the comfort it provides. It knows you, because it's been with you for so long.

After that first week, something was plucking at my feelings I couldn't put my finger on. I still wanted to play. And it still felt addictive. The game was just as well made as one would expect, and really great fun to play. Yet I had mixed feelings about playing it as often as I had played Diablo II.

It wasn't until I was struggling to pencil time to play into my current schedule that it came clear to me: I never had to do that before. Because when Diablo II was in its heyday, I was in my early twenties ... and I had all the time in the world to play videogames.

I joke about being too busy writing about videogames to actually play videogames all the time, but this was the first time I actually realized that level of conflict. As much as I wanted to play, I also had a lot of other things I wanted to do. It wasn't just annoying, grown-up responsibility stuff like cooking dinner or taking the car in for a tune-up. I also had other things on the slate, like exercise, seeing friends, and things that include getting off the internet and going outside.

The first reaction to this realization is a moment of alarm: Does this mean that I'm not a gamer anymore? Or that I'm not truly dedicated to the medium anymore?

In a piece I wrote about the thatgamecompany title Journey, I talked about how well the game suited me -- and how its short length, themes, and overall presentation resonated with me in a way that many of today's titles do not, no matter how well made they may be or how much fun they are. Somewhere in the midst of my Diablo revelation, it came clear that the type of gaming we require to be entertained may change for each of us, just as a lot of things we need as we evolve change. There's nothing to be frightened of because we realize that something that once fit us like a glove doesn't fit quite as well.

Will I stop playing Diablo III? Absolutely not. Just because I can't spend ten hours a day playing it doesn't mean I don't still enjoy the game. It's great fun. It's also something that I need a time limit on, because unlike ten years ago when I could play it with no limits, now I find I can only click my way through an hour or two of determined demon slaughter before I find myself wanting to do something else.

There's some part of me that misses being the kid that played it without a care, of course. That was a golden era. But as I learn to enjoy Diablo III in a completely different kind of way, I get that while the way you play games may change, it's hard to lose a handle on them if you've ever become truly attached to the experience of playing them. That being said, a few hours in Hell from time to time might  just do me a bit of good.

1 comment:

BLkstar said...

This reminds me of when I started playing City of Heroes. Back in 2004 I had never played an MMORPG before but once I did I was hooked to the point where I stopped functioning like a normal person. I lost track of my life for 3 years and waisted countless money and time leveling characters day and night. I remember weekends would go by and I would play for hours straight. Back in 2009 I finally put the game to rest due to repetitive game play. You couldn't have said it any other way the older you get the more responsibility you have dealing with car tune ups, which by the way I need to take care of soon, or cooking does take up time and when you finish its time to go to bed and do the rat race all over again the next day.